B’dway auds still spending, but cautiously

Thanksgiving brings bounty for some, not all

This Thanksgiving, the Broadway productions that benefited most from the holiday sales spike were mostly the ones that didn’t need the help.

Why? Blame the recession.

It’s not that people weren’t spending money. In all $25.3 million was forked over by more than 250,000 theatergoers, up 6,000 from the aud tally for the 2008 Thanksgiving sesh.

Clearly consumers were willing to shell out for theater, and in many cases ponied up the elevated holiday pricetags and premium seat fees that help boost grosses during high-demand periods.

It just seems ticketbuyers were being a lot more cautious about where they spent their money.

Marketing folk have been saying for months that the recent era of rising fiscal uncertainty has not only caused some theatergoers to cut back on the number of productions they see. It’s also made consumers more hesitant to take chances on shows without a well-known title or a familiar star to serve as a satisfaction guarantee.

And anecdotally, members of the culture-savvy set of Gothamites most likely to go to the theater say these days prices are so high, and finances so tight, that they won’t take a chance on something unless it’s a sure thing, coming with multiple recommendations.

The Thanksgiving numbers bear out that thinking. The tallies that broke records — “Wicked” logged the first $2 million week in Rialto history, while “Billy Elliot” and “The Lion King” posted best-ever venue figures — were for shows that already have solid footholds in the upper echelons of the top 10.

And the offerings that posted some of the largest gains were indelibly branded titles such as “Mary Poppins” and “Shrek the Musical,” and two globally popular Broadway longrunners, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Mamma Mia!”

Meanwhile, for musicals with less firmly established profiles — such as new tuners “Fela!” and “Memphis,” or revivals “Ragtime” and “Finian’s Rainbow” — Thanksgiving wasn’t so bountiful. And for most plays that don’t star Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman (both in “A Steady Rain”) or Jude Law (“Hamlet”), the week was a grim one.

Observers point out the Thanksgiving sesh is really only a two-day peak on Friday and Saturday, with sales for Wednesday evening shows and Sunday matinees hampered by the fact that most people are traveling those days.

Biz, then, is traditionally even more robust over the Christmas/New Year’s week. But with the gravitation toward the familiar likely to continue, it remains to be seen how many of the current crop of Broadway shows will get a box office boost from Santa.

There’s been a lot of talk about viral marketing and social networking along Broadway in recent years. The latest Internet initiative aims to expand its reach beyond the Rialto to include legit avids, both pro and amateur, from around the country.

Tuner licensing company Music Theater Intl. recently launched MTI ShowSpace, which the company hopes will become an online destination for theater enthusiasts who are putting on shows all over the U.S.

Envisioned as a place where a high school in Indiana can ask a high school in Arizona how it managed to create that rose-petal effect in a student production of “Beauty and the Beast,” ShowSpace serves a customer service niche that MTI has previously filled through helplines and email support.

Already popular on the new site, according to MTI, is an eBay-style forum that allows for the rental or resale of used set pieces, props and other materials for staging the tuners licensed by MTI.

The company hopes the site will encourage and enable more productions of its musicals. (One much-discussed topic is fundraising tips for cash-strapped educational arts programs.) Meanwhile, tour bookers are excited to pump up interest in their own offerings by pitching specifically to the network’s members.

Development of the site came in at a seven-figure tab, and the maintenance and generation of content (including editorial features such as interviews with the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown) also take coin to sustain.

“Look, it’s not a profit center for us,” say MTI prexy Drew Cohen. “But we think it’s good business.”

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